GAB 34 (Grishin’s Art Blog 34)
How (not) to paint a prime minister
In October 2018 a commissioned portrait of Australia’s 27th prime minister, Julia Gillard, was unveiled in Parliament House in Canberra. It was different from all of its predecessors for a couple of reasons – it was the first female in the line-up of the previous all-male prime ministers and it was the first ‘giant head’ style portrait.
In all, there have been twenty-five prime ministerial portraits commissioned as part of the Historic Memorials Collection that consists of about 250 works, predominantly portraits.
Portraits of women subjects in the Historic Memorials Collection are in short supply and include William Dargie‘s portrait of Enid Lyons (1951) and Archie Colquhoun‘s portrait of Senator Dorothy Tangney (1946) commemorating their respective roles as the first female member of Federal Parliament and as the first female senator. There is of course Dargie’s portrait of the Queen, but this probably doesn’t count, although she is Australia’s head of state.
The commissioning of prime ministerial portraits used to run like clockwork. Once the prime minister left office, within a couple of years they were invited to select an artist to execute their official portrait with an Official Artists Register for the Historic Memorials Committee (now administered by the National Portrait Gallery) offered as a non-binding guide to recommended artists.
The art loving prime minister, Gough Whitlam, broke with the rules and recommended a portrait painted by his mate, Clifton Pugh, which had won the 1972 Archibald Prize for Portraiture. The commissioning powers acquiesced; the portrait subsequently entered the collection and is outstanding for its vibrancy, expressive characterisation and energetic brushwork.
Once the portrait was commenced a large-scale oil sketch was produced on which the sitter and the committee signed off and then the final full-scale portrait was completed. To my knowledge, only one finished portrait was knocked back by a former prime minister and that was a portrait of Malcolm Fraser by Bryan Westwood. I think that he felt that it made him look like an arrogant petty despot with arms folded on his chest and sneering at the public.
It was replaced, at the sitter’s request but on the taxpayer’s purse, with an awful painting by Sir Ivor Hele, who incidentally, had also painted prime ministers Sir Robert Menzies and Billy McMahon.
A woman artist painted only one of the twenty-five portraits, and that is June Mendoza’s portrait of John Gorton. Most of the commissioned portraits belonged to the dark tonal school, which colloquially artists refer to as the ‘horse shit and gravy school’ of academic painting. Highlights are few and early in the piece and include George Lambert’s characterful portrait of Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Robert Hannaford’s classically observed portrait of Paul Keating.
Most of these public executions are truly awful, but probably worthy of their subjects. The process of commissioning portraits of Australian prime ministers ran smoothly until about 2010, when Jiawei Shen was commissioned the final official portrait of John Howard. Here the sitter looks remarkably like a startled cockroach.
However, subsequently, once Australia started to replace prime ministers with the frequency most people replace batteries in smoke alarms, the commissioning process seems to have broken down and no further portraits have been commissioned until that of Julia Gillard in 2018.
Julia Gillard’s portrait was painted by Vincent Fantauzzo, a male artist from Melbourne well known for his popularist portraits of Heath Ledger, Neale Daniher, Asher Keddie and Elizabeth Debicki and a regular finalist in the Archibald circus where he has been a frequent peoples’ choice favourite.
As with many of the portrait prizes Fantauzzo has developed a hyperrealist technique applied to huge heads, which are several times life-size. It is a perfect formula for art competitions where size matters and the style has to be accessible to the lowest common denominator.
It seems a pity, when there are so many excellent women portrait painters available today, as a glance at the Portia Geach Memorial Award for 2018 will testify, for a woman prime minister who has done so much to advance women’s rights to have settled for a fairly predictable male artist.
The portrait itself is unconvincing, more like a smug Lady Macbeth than the charismatic, sharp-witted and visionary prime minister who struggled against unimaginable odds and in many cases prevailed. Prime Minister Gillard deserves better than this!
In 1910 the Historic Memorials Committee debated whether photographs would suffice for portraits and decided that all parliamentarians would be photographed, but the highest office holders and a few others would be commemorated with commissioned paintings.
Perhaps, more than a century later, this policy may need to be reconsidered if the country keeps changing prime ministers with such monotonous regularity.
One advantage that Australia has over many countries is that its portraits remain in parliament – a place where rotten pictures accompany rotten politics – and they do not visually pollute the National Portrait Gallery as they do in Washington DC.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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